Softball looking to make statement in final SSAC Tourney
By Jim O'Hara and Matt Green
2012 SSAC Softball Championships
East #2 Shorter (42-9) vs. West #3 Mobile (29-14)
Thursday, April 26 • 4 pm • South Commons Park • Columbus, Ga.
COLUMBUS, Ga. – For the past five years, the Shorter University softball program has reeled off consecutive trips to the NAIA Softball National Championship, the last two resulting in appearances in the Elite Eight.
On Thursday, the Lady Hawks begin their quest for sixth and, thanks to SU's decision to become an NCAA Division II member next year, final shot at an NAIA title when they play in their last in the Southern States Athletic Conference Tournament.
Don't expect the team to get nostalgic or sentimental this last go-around. Not in the least.
For the Lady Hawks, who carry a No. 12 national ranking into the postseason, it's all about what the program's motivational mantra – proving something to themselves.
"The fact that this is our final year in the conference and in the NAIA doesn't play in their heads at all," head coach Al Thomas said as Shorter (42-9) opens the SSAC Tournament tomorrow in Columbus with a 4 pm showdown against No. 23 Mobile (29-14). "We just want to prove a point that we belong. We know once again that we have to win our own spot for the national tournament.
"We know we won't get any benefits or help. We have to do it ourselves."
The Lady Hawks have shown they have what it takes to get the job done by virtue of their performance throughout the season in the SSAC, one of the nation's toughest conferences with six members boasting national rankings.
Needing some way to immediately replace the production of four-time All-American Libby Munson, Shorter saw a group of young hurlers quickly emerge as one of the best pitching staffs in the SSAC.
"Our pitching has been awesome and has kept us in every game," Thomas said, quickly pointing out that Shorter's pitching staff is ranked No. 3 nationally in earned run average (1.19), fourth in opposing batting average (.176) and eighth in strikeouts (316).
Freshman Maddie Bray has looked more like a veteran than a first-year player as she spearheads the pitching corps having compiled a 14-4 record that includes 10 complete games and 108 strikeouts. Her remarkable 0.91 ERA not only is the best in the SSAC – she is in line to claim the conference's Pitcher of the Year and the Freshman of the Year honors – but is the fourth best in the country.
When Bray in not toeing the rubber, foes must deal with sophomore Kristen Little, who boasts an 11-3 record and a 1.24 ERA while leading the team with 115 strikeouts. Little, a 2011 SSAC All-Freshman selection, is ranked No. 5 nationally holding opponents to a paltry .191 batting average.
Sophomore Kaitie Kiser, who has a perfect 7-0 record with a 1.37 ERA and is ranked No. 3 in the NAIA with five saves, gives the Lady Hawks three proven hurlers in their arsenal.
Having been blessed with a wealth of talented arms, the Lady Hawks have backed it up with the plenty of offense.
Thanks to timely and consistent hitting throughout the lineup, Shorter begins its playoff ride hitting .350 as a team; good enough to make them the 10th best hitting team in the NAIA. The Lady Hawks lead the SSAC by a long shot with 52 home runs – Lee ranks second in the league with 27 round trippers – meaning that Shorter is averaging more than one home run per game.
As the Lady Hawks' lead-off hitter, senior Charlsie Broome has become the spark that ignites Shorter's fireworks, hitting a sizzling .412 – her 73 hits rank No. 9 in the nation – with 39 RBI. The program's all-time leader in stolen bases has added 24 more to her total this season.
Named the NAIA National Player of the Week two weeks ago after going 9-for-14 in a pair of SSAC twin bills, Broome also has the ability to go deep and shares the team and conference top spot in home runs (11) with another one of Shorter's batting stars, sophomore Jackie Castaneda.
In the running for this year's SSAC Player of the Year honor, Castaneda leads the team and the conference with an impressive .463 average, has driven in 33 runs and has a solid .752 slugging percentage.
For added measure, junior Amanda Dailey is a candidate for SSAC Newcomer of the Year thanks to a .409 average, while senior Emily Clements is hitting .365 and leading the team with 15 doubles and 48 RBI. Bre Johnson is also one of the league's best power hitters, with a career-high eight home runs to her credit this season.
All of those key pieces to the puzzle must remain in place if Shorter wants to leave the SSAC with one final statement, and although the Lady Hawks shut down Mobile in their crossover tilt earlier this season with a 5-1 win – SU also notched a 3-0 shutout of No. 6 William Carey, which is in the same bracket with Shorter in the tournament – Thomas is keenly aware that the team has to continue firing on all cylinders.
"If we come to play, our pitching and hitting hold up and we play well defensively, we will have an opportunity to win the conference," said Thomas. "We just have to take care of business."